Sunday, December 14, 2014

Things are Mushrooming

I am always amazed at the diversity in nature, from teensy frogs to giant thousands of years old sequoia trees. Some things get overlooked, however. Like the masses of fungal growth beneath our feet. Threads of fungal mycelia stretch through the soil, infiltrating dead wood and leaves, contributing to the process of decomposition.

Some of those mycelia also attach themselves to plant roots, sharing nutrients and moisture as the plants share the food they manufacture from the sun. All in all, a relationship of mutual benefit.

The network of mycelia also serves as a plant Internet of sorts, allowing plants to communicate via chemical signals.

Mushrooms are the bits of the fungi that we see. These are only a tiny part of the fungal organism, however. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, popping up through the soil when conditions are right. They mature and spread their spores. Every year, warmth and moisture invoke numerous mushrooms in the wood chips that cover my garden paths, as well as on the bales of straw and hay waiting to be spread as mulch. Every year some new type of mushroom sprouts. The forms seem neverending.

While I have always had a great respect for fungi, I got positively excited about them after listening to a couple of presentations at the Mother Earth News Fair back in October. The first presentation focused on growing mushrooms "off the grid." Just inoculate logs, wood chips, leaves or straw with the appropriate "spawn" and after a few months you have mushrooms of the edible kind. After that presentation, my husband went to one of the vendors and bought a bag of spawn for a kind of oyster mushroom. We now have several elm logs sitting on the north side of the house that should sprout oyster mushrooms in a year or so.

The presenter later also talked about the medicinal mushroom garden, which gave me an even deeper look into fungi. Some of these fungi may become the next superheroes of modern medicine. Because they must compete with other fungi, bacteria, viruses and who knows what else, fungi have evolved a veritable factory for producing the right substance needed to defeat the next competitor. Because their is no guarantee which organism they will encounter, fungi must be highly flexible. They can produce a chemical weapon to deal with whatever organism is in their way, be it a bacteria, virus or other fungi.

This ability may make them valuable in medicine, as they will be able to produce antimicrobial substances specific to whatever pathogen a person is suffering from, providing quicker, more effective treatments. Would we even need to identify what illness the person suffers from? I don't know.

The presenter, Tradd Cotter, not only grows edible and medicinal mushrooms, but has a sterile laboratory where he conducts research on the medicinal value of mushrooms. If you would like to learn more about mushrooms, edible and medicinal, visit the Web site of Cotter's mushroom "farm," Mushroom Mountain. Fascinate yourself with mushrooms.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Winter Update

The beautiful autumn lulled us into a sense of well-being, causing me to assume that the autumn would trickle through November, perhaps into December. Our first killing frost arrived well after the usual first frost date, and I was sure we'd have it easy as we headed toward the Winter Solstice.

Ah, but Nature has her wily ways. We were "blessed" with an Arctic blast that shoved the temperatures well below normal -- maybe 20 or even 30 degrees lower than normal at times. On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 18 I recorded a low temperature of 7 degrees F. That was a week ago. Today's weather is more seasonable, although it's only 37 degrees right now.

Not only were the human not ready for such a precipitous crash in the temperatures, the plants weren't quite there, either. A gradual shift from warm to cold allows plants to move energy from their upper portions into their roots, to "harden off" buds and stems that will come back to life in the spring. What exactly was the effect of this sudden plunge?

We won't know the answer until next spring.

My Rossa di Verona radicchio before the blast.
Prior to the single-digit low, I spent an afternoon putting blankets and sheets over the plants beneath the plastic low tunnels. We were expecting rain and snow (which barely made it) and I didn't want them to get soaked. Anyway, that allowed me to put even more protection over the plants, as I threw additional sheets and blankets over the tunnels the night before the single-digit morning.

And I pulled all the brussels sprouts, "re-planting" them in buckets full of compost and wheeled them into the garage (see photo above). Now I am harvesting the greens and loose sprouts at my leisure.

The kale, broccoli, cabbage and radicchio (I finally found the name of the variety I planted, Rossa di Verona) all survived the blast. The radicchio looks a bit rough, but the "heads" wrapped in layers of outer leaves should be fine. The lettuce is very questionable. Perhaps some of the young stuff will grow out of it, but we're forced to buy lettuce now.

Anyway, I am glad that this isn't Buffalo and it wasn't all buried beneath 7 feet of snow.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Winter Races In

Don't let this photo fool you. This sun-drenched scene of morning glories growing on the back of the compost bin simply made me sigh with longing.
We are currently deep into the first week of January. Yes, I know, we haven't hit Thanksgiving yet. The weather, however, seems to think that it is January, or at least late December.

On Monday I worked outdoors in jeans and a shirt, and was still a bit too warm. It felt like May.
On Tuesday, we lit a fire in the stove and have not let it go out since. Lows in the teens and highs in the mid-20s to low 30s. And it will get colder yet with Monday night's (actually, Tuesday morning's) low in the single digits. Not November weather at all.

Hedge apples lodged in the crook of the hedge tree trunk.
So I spent Monday morning removing the frost blanket from the low tunnels, watering and draping plastic over the hoops, with an extra bit of cover inside the low tunnel for good measure. As the lows deepened this week, I started draping extra sheets and blankets over the low tunnels. Tomorrow I will harvest more lettuce and put the extra covers inside so they don't get wet and heavy with Saturday's snowfall. A little on the early side for snow, too.

On the up side, the temperatures will climb by the middle of next week.

It was a lovely autumn, though. I spent many a warm autumn afternoon listening to the gentle thunk, thunk, thud of the hedge apples falling. I don't know how many wheelbarrow loads I carted to the edge of the woods, but it's hard to believe one tree can produce so much. Fortunately, only one of the two hedge -- aka Osage orange -- trees in our yard is female and fruit producing. The other is male, so it just pollinates.

One of today's tasks in preparation for the coming cold was to insulate the fig trees. While the roots of these trees will survive our Kansas winters, the upper portions will winterkill, so they must be protected against the cold if you want to get figs. Usually, this would be done a bit later, but usually, the temperatures drop a bit more slowly. I figured that another couple of nights in the teens and then 7 degrees F might be too much. So I stacked haybales (freshly cut this year) and plastic garbage bags stuffed with ripped up row cover around the figs, then draped the constructions with tarps and tied it all down (well enough, I hope) with used baling twine.

The fig trees are trained horizontally, in a free-standing espalier form -- free standing because they are not against a wall. This photo is of the larger and older of the two fig trees. Ideally, it would be in the center of the trellis, but I started it as a one-sided espalier running east and west. It now runs sort of north and south to better accommodate the second fig, and the planting area would not handle a third post further north of the trunk. This photo obviously shows the tree during warmer days.

Some day I might even get figs.

Even though winter has come hard and fast, I feel blessed by this growing season. Both of the small freezers are full. Kale and other cole crops still stand in the garden, and I hope keep standing. Freshly washed lettuce is draining in the sink. Remnants of summer -- dried tomatoes and eggplant -- sit in the pantry.

A few days ago I dug the roots of ashwaganda, an Ayurvedic herb that I grew for the first time this year. One quart and one pint of ashwaganda tincture steeps on the pantry shelf, alongside the echinacea tincture I started in July.

The house is warm and the tea kettle whistles, ready to brew homegrown herb tea. Yes, the garden has been good to me.

(At right: One more late summer/early autumn photo. Blossoms of the tropical milkweed that hosted several Monarch butterfly larvae. However, the bug peering from the blooms is a red and black milkweed bug, which looks suspiciously like a box elder bug, but isn't.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Happy Autumn

The Autumn Equinox has passed and we are dipping deeper into the dark half of the year.

Roots dig, dig, dig as leaves shrivel.

We dig deep...


We dig...

Sweet Potatoes!

This is my harvest from a mere 13 plants in a 15x3.5-foot bed. I did nothing to the sweet potato plants all year except plant them and water them for a couple of weeks, and put bird netting over them to keep the deer and bunnies from nibbling their tender tops. After that... nothing until I dug them.

Oh, I did prune back the vines when they started to escape the bird netting.

Sweet potatoes require lean soil, so you don't have to fertilize them, and little water. Unless it's dry for a long time, they need nothing more than the rainfall. Few pests and diseases plague them. Only foliage nibbling critters. And most people do nothing to protect the batata vines.

All of my resources recommend curing the sweet potatoes at 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. By this time of year, we are well past those temperatures. However, a local market grower told me he cures his at room temperature. Good enough for me. I am not going to -- as some sources suggest -- run a space heater in a room to cure the sweeties.

Curing is important because it converts starches to sugars, making the roots taste even better. It also helps seal those inevitable nicks from the digging fork, which are nearly impossible to avoid. To make the less likely, stick the fork in at least a foot from the center of the plant. But even that isn't a guarantee.

And don't forget to attend the nearest sweet potato festivities. October has been declared Sweet Potato Month here and several events are planned in Lawrence, Kansas (perhaps elsewhere, too, but I know nothing about them). The events include a community sweet potato potluck in early November. Visit the Celebrate Sweet Potatoes -- Lawrence, KS Facebook page to share and find sweet potato recipes and learn about events here. Then look for when the new Web site is complete and online to learn even more. Celebrate Autumn. Celebrate sweet potatoes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Things move quickly at this time of year.
Just 10 days ago I found this Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a screen door on the front porch. I knew that is was a Monarch chrysalis (moths make cocoons) because just the day before I took this photo I had seen the caterpillar in its familiar striped suit hanging upside down from that same spot. Its head was slightly curled up as it waited for its skin to harden.

Nearby, some of its siblings or cousins were busily munching on the tropical milkweed, waiting for their own metamorphosis.

All of the information I found about Monarchs said that it would remain in chrysalis form for about two weeks, before emerging as a butterfly. Yet, only a week later I went to check on the chrysalis to find it open at the bottom and a new butterfly on the concrete floor below drying its wings. It fluttered to a nearby columbine leaf when I tried to manipulate it into a more picturesque position. You can see a tip of one wing (right) slightly curled from still being damp.

I am privileged to be able to witness this and the many other cycles occurring around me each day.

And now the cycle has turned to autumn. Garden production has slowed. Where I once was fretting about whether I'd get tired of watermelon and cantaloupe, I am now regretting that their season is almost at an end.

Such are the cycles of life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

August's Bounty

Summer's bounty: trombocino and yellow crookneck summer squashed, eggplant, okra and long beans.
We had not yet arrived at the Summer Solstice when I made my last post, and now we are well ensconced in August. But a relatively cool August (mid- to upper 80s F.) with 3 inches of rain so far this month, unusual.
Following the strawberries featured in the last post, I picked what few black raspberries were produced, then tore out all my plants so I could start a new bed well away from the blackberries. Black raspberries suffer from a virus carried by blackberries, which show little to no signs of problems. So, sigh, starting over again.

The blackberries started producing shortly after I started picking black raspberries, and are still giving me berries because this is a primocane variety. Blueberries also started coming on at about that time and have just finished. I am happy to report that my freezer contains several bags of all but the black raspberries. These will serve us during the winter. Right now, we have moved on to other fruit.

These Liberty apples will ripen in October.
We got a fairly nice crop of summer apples -- William's Pride, which ripens in August. The apples have had much less pest damage than we expected, since we did no protective sprays this year. I suspect that our late freezes had a little to do with the lower level of pest pressure. William's Pride apple store for only about a month, so we will need to eat, cook or dry them over the next few weeks.

And cantaloupe!

As I frantically harvested and processed and gave away produce last week in preparation for being gone from Thursday through the weekend, I watched the melon patch. I ate a couple of small watermelons, but the cantaloupes remained green.

An unripe Kansas cantaloupe.
On Wednesday evening I went out to assess the lettuce and discovered about a half dozen orange cantaloupes in the bed next door. What was I going to do with all this cantaloupe? Refrigerator space was not available.

I made a produce run, delivering melons and cucumbers to friends. This seems to be an excellent year for melons, as the cantaloupes and watermelons are producing quite well. Cantaloupe varieties are Kansas (which has done well for me in the past), Old Greek (a football shaped melon) and American Melon, which has a longer (French?) name that I can't remember, but which means Green Fleshed Pineapple. When I cut open the first of these last ones to ripen, I was disappointed. It was green inside -- not ripe, I thought. But it was soft and fragrant and sweet-tasting. I looked at the packet and realized that all was as it should be. I'll talk about my watermelons in a later post.

Salt and Pepper pickling cucumber.
And cucumbers. For some reason I had been under the impression my husband did not care if I made pickles this year, we had a few jars left from last year and did not seem to be eating them very quickly. So I planted fewer cucumbers than usual. Then a few weeks ago he decided that, yes, we should have pickles. (The son-in-law loves pickles we discovered and they can be expensive.) Not to worry, though. The few vines I had planted produced more than enough for pickles. Plus, I always plant succession, so more vines are coming into production.

Fifteen pints and eight quarts of vinegar pickles and 3 quarts of fermented pickles, plus 3 quarts of "quick pickles that can be eaten right away -- so far. I will give you my pickle recipe at the end of this post.

Tomatoes and eggplant also are quite prolific. The Amish Paste tomatoes will not be canned, but were planted expressly to dry, since I have plenty of canned sauce from last year and no dried tomatoes left. The eggplant also goes into my solar dehydrator to make eggplant chips, which can be tossed into soups or stews, but which we like to eat as snacks.
Carnival Acorn Squash in front of a basket of Sun Gold and
 Black Cherry tomatoes

Some of the summer squash -- Trombocino -- also is being dried into snack veggies, as well as frozen for winter stir fries. Trombocino was touted as being less susceptible to squash bugs. Its fruit is long and curvy and end in a bulb. Tasty. Squash bugs have appeared and turned some of the leaves yellow or wilty, but the plants are doing well. I trained the vines up a trellis, as I did the Carnival acorn squash, which is suffering a little from squash bugs, but still producing. Perhaps the late frosts also reduced the squash bug population this year. I won't expect the same results next year, but I will try.

And so, that should be enough of an update. I've got okra and long beans, too. And the freezer has been nearly filled with an abundant crop of kale, but I will end here, with the pickle recipe, as promised.

4 pounds of 4-inch pickling cucumbers (I like Salt and Pepper, and Miniature White cucumbers)
1/2 cup pickling/canning salt
4 cups water

2 3/4 cups cider vinegar (white, if you prefer)
3 cups water
10 cloves garlic, split
10 heads (or 5 tablespoons) dill seed
5 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
2 1/2 tablespoons coriander seed
Black peppercorns

All seeds should be whole. NOT ground. Wash and slice cucumbers and place into a container (I use a 2-gallon crock). Mix salt with 4 cups water and pour over cucumber slices. Place a plate on top and weight with a jar(s) of water so liquid will cover the cucumbers (don't worry, in a few minutes the slices will squish down enough). Let stand for 2 hours, then drain and rinse.
Sterilize 5 pint jars and keep hot in 200 degree oven. Mix water and vinegar in a pan, add garlic and bring to a boil. As vinegar/water reaches a boil remove garlic, add cucumbers and bring to a boil again. As you wait for the cucumber slices to boil, take out hot jars and place two pieces of garlic and 1 tablespoon each of dill seed (or two heads) and mustard seed in each jar, 1/2 tablespoon coriander and several peppercorns. Using a canning funnel, pack cucumber slices into jars, gently pressing down as you go. All slices should fit into the jars with at least 1/2 inch head space (space between cukes and top of jar). Then add vinegar/water to cover cukes, leaving 1/2 inch head space.
Wipe rims and threads clean, place hot lids on jars and tightly screw on bands. Process for 5 minutes in boiling water bath. Remove and let cool overnight before removing rings and storing.
If using quarts, this amount will fill just 4 jars with vinegar left over, so you can use more cucumbers (with proper amount of salt and water). Or do as I do and make quick pickles by adding seasonings and more garlic, cucumber slices and boiling for about 5 or 10 minutes. Place in containers and refrigerate when cooled. Use within two or three weeks.
To make hot pickles, add split or chunked hot peppers to vinegar water with garlic and remove when you remove garlic. Eliminate dill seed, but use mustard and coriander and peppercorns, with a sprinkling of cumin seed. How many peppers to used depends on the peppers and the amount of heat you desire. Divide peppers evenly among jars as you do the garlic. Then follow rest of directions.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries

This season's features are "Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries," and "Monster Kale."
This is the first year of production for my little strawberry patch and it has been delightful. I can eat my fill of strawberries every day, and three gallons of the red gems have been put in the freezer... so far. Strawberries in December! I prefer whole strawberries to jam, but, who knows? I may make some anyway. The berries are so abundant. This K-State Extension publication provides good info on strawberry cultivation. The varieties in my garden are Earliglow, Surecrop and Eclair. Eclair has been disappointing, so I will remove it and make way for a better variety to be planted in a couple of years. This Mother Earth News article also has some good info on strawberries.

And the kale! The Tuscan kale, aka "lacinato kale," and "dinosaur kale" gives me giant leaves now. The basket in the picture of kale is approximately 20 inches (about 50 centimeters) long, to give you an idea how large some of the leaves are. Lacinato is a beefy kale with a rich flavor and does best in warmer weather. It does not stand up to the cold as well as some other kales, but I still plant it in the fall.

When the kale was still fairly small, a few weeks after I put it in the ground, I surrounded each plant with eggshells to thwart snails and slugs and then fertilized it with some blood meal that had been sitting in the cabinet for a while. I think I got the blood meal for thwarting bean-eating bunnies. I did the same to the broccoli and cauliflower. I don't remember ever having such large lacinato. I've been able to put kale in the freezer, as well as eat it regularly. This kale is under row cover to protect against cabbage white butterflies and their larvae. Collards and kale in another covered bed came down with a serious case of aphids, so the row cover is gone and the aphids mostly got washed away with a hard spray of water. Lady bugs and other aphid eaters are now feasting in that bed.

The first planted lettuce gives an abundance. Such a lot of lettuce from such a small patch. It seems it's always nothing or too much with lettuce. And it started raining just in time. It was a dry spring and I thought I was going to have to spend lots of time on irrigation. But June has started with rain every other day. Like with the lettuce, it seems it is either dearth or too much rain.

And PEAS! Finally, peas again. The cutworms and rabbits have decided to let me harvest peas this year, after refusing to let them grow the last two seasons. Of course, I put a little effort into the process. Yay peas!